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Wot I Think: Hard West

Scratch that XCOM or Jagged Alliance itch.

Much has been made of how Hard West [official site] is XCOM-with-cowboys, but if anything it's more like Jagged Alliance. With cowboys. Demon cowboys, yes, but really they're just cowboys with horns and a flame effect. Point is, this isn't a game about gradually building up a super-squad and a grandiose base in order to take down an almighty, otherworldly threat, but about a small gang of gun-wielders carving or limping their way through more disassociated skirmishes.

That's not an opinion. Not yet; I just want us to be clear. This isn't XCOM with cowboys. It's a turn-based strategy game with roleplaying elements with cowboys. There was a time when 'turn-based strategy' wasn't defined by XCOM, you see. True, we prayed every day for a new X-COM during those wilderness years, but we didn't want the entire genre to be about it.

I don't think Hard West does, either. For all the superficial similarities - the percentage chance to hit, the cover system, the permanent fatalities - it's very clearly trying to be its own game. Maybe a little too hard, to be honest. Its Wild West concept barely has a moment to breathe before it lays the demonic aspect over the top of it, to the point that it might as well have been set in present day Chicago, Belgium's distant future or Dagenham high street on Tuesday, February 10th, 1981. The meat of the game is really just some men with guns versus some men who sometimes have horns. It's a testament to the solid, tense combat that Hard West always feels like it's walking its own road even despite this.

The narrative, doomy and dry, offers no shortage of Frontier tropes, though all rapidly tend towards the mystical. So please don't turn up expecting turn-based Red Dead Redemption - though at a pinch, you're getting the Undead Nightmare add-on.

Hard West puts the work in to build atmosphere, front-loading its numerous sub-campaigns with apocalyptic morality tales about deals with the devil, survivor's guilt and mysterious strangers, and peppering the mid-mission dialogue with elliptical prophecies from all-knowing hermits and mad soothsayers. It's playful, in an extremely serious sort of way. Unfortunately the presentation of the game proper can't quite keep up, with the arid lighting, samey art and over-filled text boxes lending it an undeniable air of cheapness. The ambition is clearly there, but, I can't help but suspect, the budget was not.

The ambition most shines in the systems. There's a ton of ideas being thrown around, but admirably buttoned down into logical and coherent controls. For instance, each of your characters isn't saddled with a set clutch of skills, but instead carries 'cards', each with their own constantly active or recharging single-shot power. You can assign any card to any character, essentially turning everyone into a specialist of your own design, rather than of the game's. I've got, for instance, a guy with lousy accuracy but tons of hitpoints, who carries a shotgun and has a big movement boost so he can essentially run right up to anyone and drop a shell into their spine. Another is frail but with good range, and who can cast a fatal hex on any enemy in sight - so long as they're not stood in sunlight.

Truth be told there aren't quite enough characters or powers available to create too many variations, but nonetheless it's a neat way of making your squad feel yours when visual customisation isn't available. It might even be a more meaningful one. Which makes it only the more sad that your characters are effectively lost after just an hour or two. Not because of death - more on that shortly - but because the campaign is divided into vignettes, each with their own stars. Some interconnect, some loop back, and there is a Getting The Gang Together throughline, but it means a lot of stopping and starting.

I really like the theory behind this - there are hundreds of stories out there in the Weird West, each just as worth telling as any other - but it lends the game a stacatto feel it doesn't deserve. Stories end abruptly, others dawdle along uncertainly before stumbling to a halt with a routine boss fight, and effort put into buying new weapons and trading tobacco and liquor across settlements simply doesn't seem worthwhile. Even if the next story stars one or some of the same characters, all their equipment and skills reset. On top of that, some campaigns introduce new ideas, such as hunger or gold-prospecting, which are ditched come the next one, never quite establishing purpose or pay-off. It's a jittery game, and feels as though it's made of parts pushed loosely together rather than ever built as one whole.

At the same time, this means nothing outstays its welcome, and there's certainly pleasure to seeing what scenario it's going to throw at you next. Losing everything you've put into your characters is unforgivable, but I can appreciate that it's been done in the name of balance. Hard West is forever seeking the sweet spot between challenging and punishing, and pretty much manages to stick to it (although you can crank things right up and turn on an Iron Man mode which necessitates restarting an entire sub-campaign if certain characters are lost). It doesn't quite live up to the chest-thumping of its title, but as far as I'm concerned that's a good thing.

The lack of a mid-battle save system had me swearing a few times, when one cock-up meant I'd have to repeat some 40 minutes of careful work, but it's there to necessitate caution and thoughtfulness, and I don't really begrudge it that. It did make me careful, to the point of anxiety - never leaving cover, reloading my weapons compulsively, scurrying wounded units way out of sight. In battle, Hard West has that special blend of tension, of risk/reward, which made so many of us love Jagged Alliance, X-COM and XCOM. Every decision feels momentous - apart from the odd moment when there's only one enemy left but the bugger's hiding somewhere and you have to trawl the whole map to find him.

The fights are good, then. They look a little bit ropey, a little too Made In Unity, but they're scary and thoughtful and crunchy. The card powers are a giggle, some appealingly devastating and others curiously specialised, and they enable Hard West to regularly present scenarios which appear unwinnable at first look but are eminently beatable with a little consideration.

Watch on YouTube

Outside of fights, Hard West is a more mixed bag. It tries to be a baby RPG between missions, as you scuttle across a map trading in towns and making occasional dialogue choices with slightly different outcomes, but while characterful it sadly seems a little purposeless. It's just killing time before the next battle, and there's every chance that will be the last battle before the sub-campaign ends and everything resets. To start with I'd try to do everything I could, agonised over every choice and every purchase, but as the game wore on I felt my time was being wasted, and sought out the quickest apparent route to more gunplay. The flavour text in these sections isn't bad, but neither it is wild or funny or ingenious enough to prop up the innate purposelessness of scuttling around that map.

It just adds to that sense that Hard West is a turn-based strategy game with a strong core surrounded by a fragmented, uncertain exterior. I'd say it's definitely worth picking up if your XCOM and Jagged Alliance itches currently feel unscratched, but expect something to dip in and out of, not some grand timesink opus. The best times with it will come from playing it on maxed-out difficulty in Iron Man mode, and its wounds system - whereby the injured are weaker in the short term but even stronger in the long term - turned on. Make the central battles as long as involved as possible, because that's where Hard West has the surest footing.

Hard West is out now for Windows via Steam, GOG and Humble.

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